Scripting the star

Rajkumar Hirani

Today, he has done the impossible for his generation: given five successive blockbusters as director — a record untouched by most. Manoj Kumar had directed five successive hits in 15 years, but one of them did average business on release and only later did it become a cult film. The greatest of our legendary filmmakers — be it V Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, B R  Chopra, Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Vijay Anand or Yash Chopra, have all given a flop or two interspersed with hits.

Rajkumar Hirani has created a flop-free record in 15 years — Munna Bhai MBBS (2003), Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), 3 Idiots (2009), PK (2014), and now Sanju. And in many ways, Sanju, which crossed the 100-crore benchmark in its opening, was his most risky and dicey film.

Besides being his first biopic, it was also the story of a film star, Sanjay Dutt, who has always been perceived to have (avoidable) close connections with the underworld and other negative tendencies like drugs and womanising.

Testing the waters

“This is exactly why I turned down the initial proposal by Maanyata after he had gone to jail,” notes the writer-director-editor-producer. “I told her that drugs, darkness and the underworld were not areas I wanted to deal with in my films, as they did not inspire me.” Never at a loss for ideas or work, Rajkumar was then scripting the third film in the Munna Bhai franchise with Abhijat Joshi. Yes, the film would be made only after Sanjay came out of jail.

He goes on, “You must understand that despite doing most of my films with Sanjay, we were never close friends, but more of an actor-director team that had grown because of the success of those films. But when Sanjay came out on parole and I visited him, I just asked him how he spent his days in jail and he was very candid about everything. I had gone to meet him at five in the evening and stayed there, engrossed, till almost 2 in the night.”

Sanjay then called him over the next day, and now the director began to have some inkling of something worthwhile in the idea of filming his story. More sessions between Sanjay, him and Abhijat Joshi followed, and the Munna Bhai script was set aside to begin work on the biopic.

The predominant opinion today is that the film has glorified Sanjay Dutt, touting him as just a much-misunderstood and gullible victim of the media. Rajkumar says, “I did not want controversies.  I cross-checked everything Sanjay told me with police and court documents and other people. Also, he has held nothing back from me. If he had told me not to show something that I needed to show, I would have gone ahead and done something else, not Sanju.” All his films until now had powerful social messages to give. Does he expect that to happen with this film? “I only wanted to entertain and never set out to make films to give messages. The audience took home something from each of my films. So, it is up to them.’’

Though it was Shah Rukh Khan, the biggest draw at the time, who was to initially portray Munna but could not because of his back problems, Rajkumar’s casting has always been spot-on. He had his favourites, but they have all been versatile talents. His association with Aamir Khan, for example, began when Aamir assured him he would “look like a college student in 3 Idiots” even if he did not feel like one!

At the time of PK, we recall Rajkumar telling us, “As for Ranbir Kapoor, I don’t think that there has to be a physical resemblance. A convincing suspension of disbelief can be achieved.” But today, the resemblance is so startling, without going over-the-top or into mimicry, that Ranbir Kapoor has been his biggest stroke of genius. How did he think of him for the role of Sanjay Dutt?

“The similarity in his looks in Saawariya and Sanjay’s height, figure and looks in Rocky first made me think of him,” he reveals. “The challenging part was how he could fit in the later parts of the film, when Sanjay built his body, developed his swag, and then started ageing to the point that his hair thinned as well.” 

The director is grateful that make-up, wigs, prosthetics and physical effort alone were not Ranbir’s only means of “getting there”. He put in so much effort in everything, had long conversations with Sanjay, and even used his perfume to internalise the character, he says.

Something different 

How did he finally deal with the dark elements that were not his cup of tea? “Every writer or director, on hearing a story, picks up different interpretations of it. For me, it was about the dynamics of the relationships, especially between Sunil Dutt and his son. I have covered Sanjay’s life from 1980. That was the time when he was into drugs, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and he was shooting for Rocky.” 

We recall how Rajkumar had shrugged and said that he was forced to get in three music directors in PK at the behest of the music label. This time, too, we have three entities, apart from the original old songs used in various contexts that are composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal and R D Burman. “I wanted to try this out,” he admits. “When so many directors are doing it, I thought of experimenting here as well.”

He has hinted a 3 Idiots sequel recently, but it all depends on how the script pans out. As of now, the third film in the Munna Bhai series is almost ready and he will take it on next.

Now that Sanju has opened to a record high as the biggest domestic opener of 2018, has his usual nervousness passed? Rajkumar laughs in the answer because those close to him are well-aware of his  ‘funda’ that the only time he was not nervous was when his first film released. “Audiences even now think that the past is perfect. When Lage Raho… released, they thought Munna Bhai MBBS was way better. The same happened with the subsequent films.”

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Scripting the star

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